Edward Lemon: What Can Putin Learn From Central Asian Autocrats?

To understand how Russia’s political path resembles its Central Asian neighbors, Yana Gorokhovkaya, Ph.D. in political science, spoke to Professor Edward Lemon a DMGS-Kennan Institute Fellow at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School and expert on authoritarian governance and security in Eurasia.

ReForum: Before his speech on March 10, some had speculated that Putin might opt for the so-called “Kazakhstan maneuver”: by formalizing the previously informal but powerful State Council, Putin would cede the presidency and follow Nursultan Nazarbayev in creating a “Father of the Nation” super-presidential post for himself.

There are strong cultural differences between Russia and Kazakhstan and Putin has not devoted resources to the development of a cult of personality akin to Nazarbayev’s. As a Central Asia specialist, did the Kazakh scenario seem like a likely option for Putin to you?

Lemon: On 19 March 2019 – a year ago this week – Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled Kazakhstan since 1989, resigned live on public television. In resigning, however, he didn’t cede power completely. In line with the constitution, power was transferred to Kassym-Jomart Tokayev, the speaker of the Senate. Tokayev was then elected president in a snap election in June. Despite this, Nazarbayev continues to exercise power as the chairman of the ruling Nur Otan party. He is the chairman for life of the country’s Security Council and, since 2010, he’s been known as ‘elbasy’ or Leader of the Nation, which renders him immune from prosecution and guarantees him certain fringe benefits in retirement. As head of the Security Council, Nazarbayev can continue to veto appointments at the regional and national levels. Moreover, instead of consolidating his power in the presidency, Tokayev has recently granted Nazarbayev new veto powers including the right to veto appointments to the head of certain government institutions such as the central bank and the security services. So what we’ve seen in Kazakhstan is the development of a so-called ‘tandemocracy’ loosely modeled on Singapore where Lee Kuan Yew assumed the posts of Senior Minister and Minister Mentor after stepping down from his post as Prime Minster in 1990, after 31 years in power.

After Nazarbayev made his move in 2019, there was a flurry of articles by people suggesting that Putin too would like a “Kazakh retirement.” So it was not surprising that in January of this year, when the constitutional amendments were announced, debate about the Kazakh model re-emerged. However, I was skeptical of this. First, as you say, Putin and Nazarbayev have established very different identities for themselves. Nazarbayev is the Leader of the Nation and he’s also the first president of the country. Putin can’t claim to be the father of the nation. He can’t claim the title of the first president. He hasn’t developed the same kind of cult of personality. Immediately after Nazarbayev resigned, the capital was renamed in his honor. One can’t imagine the same fate for Moscow. Putin, meanwhile has cultivated the image of a technocrat and dedicated manager. A second difference between Russia and Kazakhstan is the fact that Nazarbayev has an extensive family which is involved in political life. His daughter is the Speaker of the Senate and is now second in line to the presidency after Tokayev. Putin’s two daughters are largely absent from public life and he won’t leave behind a network of kleptocratic wealth connected to family akin to Nazarbayev’s. Putin is more interested in protecting his political legacy: a strong state, a resurgent Russia in the Middle East, anti-Westernism and conservatism. The third reason that the Kazakh model may not be attractive is that it’s not working very well. Since Nazarbayev resigned, the country has gone a bit off the rails. The situation was already deteriorating when he made the decision to leave. Protests about the country’s crumbling infrastructure had broken out after a Soviet-era apartment building collapsed killing nine people, mostly children. Kazakhstan had already been suffering from falling oil prices since 2014. These issues have continued post-Nazarbayev and have been compounded by the COVID-19 emergency, the expected fall in oil exports to China, and the national currency sinking to its lowest level ever against the US dollar. New protest movements are emerging throughout the country. Now there are even rumors that Tokayev may be stepping down.

ReForum: Luca Anceschi pointed out recently on Twitter that Kazakhstan’s executive transition has disappointed many by failing to deliver the socio-economic and political change that citizens were hoping for.

Lemon: Tokayev is a technocrat and a loyalist. He was, at one time, in the running to be the Secretary General of the United Nations. He’s a very skilled manager. But he hasn’t been given the autonomy to move away from Nazarbayev and reform the country’s institutions in a meaningful way. He’s hampered by Nazarbayev’s looming presence in the background and has consistently said that he’s going to continue building on the Nazarbayev’s legacy and that reform will be gradual. To complicate matters, Tokayev will now face extreme socio-economic challenges. The crisis in Kazakhstan is just beginning.

ReForum: It seems as though at the time of leadership transition, there is a tradeoff between appointing a successor that will protect the autocrat’s family and that successor’s ability to establish legitimacy in their own right through reforms. Are autocrats who have been in office for a long time facing a dangerous choice between protecting themselves and ensuring the continuation of the regime? 

Lemon: I think that’s a great formulation. We talk about a succession dilemma whereby if an autocrat names a successor before he steps down, he risks becoming a lame duck and being pushed aside. But we haven’t really studied how a system of tandemocracy or dual rule – where the autocrat appoints a loyalist to take over – might inhibit the ability of the formal successor to move away from their predecessor’s policies. I think the problems associated with that are what we’re seeing in Kazakhstan now.

ReForum: Writing recently for The Diplomat, Mark Smeltzer of Freedom House’s Nations in Transit suggested that Putin’s succession plans are limited by the fact that he doesn’t have – as the autocratic leaders of Tajikistan or Turkmenistan – a “well-placed family member” that he can hand power over to. To what degree do the dynamics of the Russian political elite – based on patronage and personal connection – differ from the elite dynamics of Central Asian states that are based on family and regional ties?

Lemon: At a basic level, we are talking about similar political systems: what Henry Hale has called patronal politics. In patronal political systems, personal relationships matter more than skill level. And this isn’t unique to countries of the former Soviet Union. But family and ties to a home region play a much more prominent role in Central Asian states. In Tajikistan, the country that is my primary focus, the president, Emomali Rahmon, has a much larger family than Putin. He has nine children. His son is the mayor of the capital city and his daughter is his chief of staff. A number of other children hold important posts in government and business. The president’s brother in law controls the second-largest private bank and the largest private airline. Marriage into the family has also been key. The president’s son in law is the deputy chairman of the national bank. Another son in law controls key interests in transport, tourism, and trade. Coming from a certain area – in the case of Tajikistan, most of the elites come from the south of the country, especially Danghara where Rahmon was born – also matters a great deal. In Uzbekistan, we see the dominance of the Samarkand clan under President Mirziyoyev. In the case of Kazakhstan, we see the family of Nazarbayev playing a key role in politics.

Within this system, the best and most stable form of succession is hereditary succession. This is the only way you can guarantee to the elite that the same system will be kept in place and that they will have a steady income from rents. We’ve seen one case of successful hereditary succession in the region: in Azerbaijan. But we’ve also seen the cultivation of potential hereditary succession in other places in Central Asia. In Tajikistan, the president’s son has been the mayor of the capital city for 3 years. In 2016, the constitution was changed to lower the minimum required age of a candidate for president which would allow him to run for that office in the future. In Turkmenistan, we have seen the 38-year-old son of the president being rapidly rotated through different government positions. Most recently he was appointed the Minister for Trade. Last year on television in Turkmenistan, the president – Gurnbanguly Berimuhamedow – ran a relay race in which he symbolically passed the baton to his son. It was framed as a symbol of the continuity of generations. These regimes are based on nepotistic ties within the family and there is an interest in maintaining these ties after the president has left office.

ReForum: Is it easier to manage elite networks that are based on family or regional ties? Much of the debate about Putin’s plans is about how he will maintain uncertainty among the elite as a way of protecting himself. Does this suggest that for Putin elite management is harder than for autocrats that can rely on family networks?

Lemon: There have been reports of fallings out in these autocratic families. Gulnara Karimova in Uzbekistan is a prime example. She – as the daughter of the president – used her position in the government to solicit hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes from foreign investors in the telecommunications sector. She was charged this week and now faces 13 years in prison. Even before the death of her father, Islam Karimov, she has already pushed aside politically and placed under house arrest. In Tajikistan, there have been rumors that the president’s son shot his uncle – the president’s brother in law back in 2008. There are these conflicts. However, within the broader family system with the president taking the position of father – literally – of the state and the elite as the family of the country, what we see is that the president is able to resolve elite disputes. Those elite structures have been more stable but they can break down particularly after the death of a president or after a revolution.

ReForum: Henry Hale warned in a recent Ponars Policy Memo that Putin’s method for avoiding becoming a lame duck now “may come at the price of instability in the not-too-distant future.” Hale argues that Putin has chosen the “Azerbaijan 2009” strategy: Alham Aliyev used a referendum to make himself eligible to run for president after his constitutionally-prescribed term limit was reached. Despite the fact that Aliyev retained his office, he is now facing problems of economic stagnation and a difficult cadre renewal. How successful was Aliyev’s strategy and what lessons are there for Putin and Russia?

Lemon: To my knowledge, no other post-Soviet president has done what Putin has now done in zeroing out his previous terms in office. But others have certainly extended their presidential terms. Azerbaijan was not even the first one to do this. The first was Saparmurat Niyazov of Turkmenistan. He was elected in 1994 and then he extended his rule until 2002. In 1999 he declared himself president for life doing away with term limits. Niyazov ruled Turkmenistan from 1985 to 2006 but was only elected once. Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus did the same thing in 2004. Nazarbayev did it in 2007. Aliyev was the fourth leader to do this. Rahmon in Tajikistan did it in 2016. Karimov just ignored the two-term limit in the constitution without bothering to change it. There are a number of examples of presidents in the post-Soviet spaces abolishing or ignoring presidential term limits. If we look at the fate of the presidents who have done that: two are dead, one is retired, and three remain in power.

With Azerbaijan specifically, as Hale points out, there are similarities in a way that the constitutional reform is being done in Russia. In both countries, the most important constitutional changes were buried among a myriad of other amendments. But in Azerbaijan, the transition took the form of hereditary succession. Ilham Aliyev came to power in 2003 after his father and extended his rule in 2009, at a time of stability among a well-established set of cadres. The presidential administration, the minister of internal affairs, the minister of national security, the minister of defense, all had held their positions since the early 1990s remained throughout the transition. Hereditary succession and term extension provided stability in the elite. Aliyev also benefited at the time from record-high oil prices and weak opposition. Russia and Azerbaijan now – as opposed to a decade ago – are both struggling with elite renewal in a tougher economic situation caused by falling oil prices. There are some lessons Putin can draw but the situation in 2020 or 2024 when the transition or non-transition is attempted in Russia is going to be different from the situation in 2009 in Azerbaijan.

ReForum: In 2030, when he can run for a second term as president under the revised constitution, Putin will be 78 years old, well past the 66.5 year life expectancy of Russian men. According to data collected by Milan Svolik, the most likely constitutional exit for an autocrat is natural causes (i.e. death). While the most likely unconstitutional exit is a coup d’état. What happens when an autocrat dies in office? What can we learn from the death of Uzbekistan’s Islam Karimov and the political situation thereafter?

Lemon: Within the former Soviet Union we have two examples of presidents who died while in office, and one – Heydar Aliyev – who died immediately after leaving office. There have been very different outcomes in each case.

Heydar Aliyev was in declining health throughout 2003 and in October of that year, he handed power over to his son. Two months later, Heydar died. No purge of the elite followed Aliyev’s death. The second case of a president dying in office was Niyazov of Turkmenistan, who died suddenly in 2006. Formally, the power was supposed to go to the leader of the Assembly of Turkmenistan Ovezgeldy Atayew, but he was swiftly arrested. The decision about who would inherit power was taken behind closed doors. Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow emerged as the leader from that process and instead of maintaining the existing elite networks as had happened in Azerbaijan, he gradually moved against them. He first targeted the former president’s family, seizing their assets. Then he moved against those who put him in power, including the kingmaker – the chief of security since the 1980s, a man named Akmurat Rejepov – who was arrested and sent to prison for 17 years. The president died in office and within two years, the new president removed and replaced most of the vestiges of the old regime. A somewhat similar situation happened in Uzbekistan when Karimov died in 2016. Power was officially transferred to the Speaker of the Senate but he quickly stepped aside. The Prime Minister, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, was selected to plan the funeral which indicated that he was the most likely successor. He was indeed eventually elected president and he quickly moved against other people who had been also rumored to be potential successors. Mirziyoyev has since purged the key power institutions within the country and appointed loyalists. Karimov’s family has been gradually politically marginalized.

The Central Asian countries show that if a president dies in office without having nominated a successor, whoever emerges from the ensuing struggle for power will likely disrupt the existing elite networks. And the lesson of death in office for Putin, which might not matter as much for him since he does not have the next generation to pass on his power to: those dictators who die in office without a successor leave their families exposed. The most prominent elite members who are there in 2030 or 2036, if there is no successor established by Putin by then, will find themselves in a vulnerable position.

ReForum: If we accept the idea that the most important thing for Putin is to ensure his political – and perhaps not personal or familial – legacy, how have the leaders who died in office in Central Asia been remembered? What has happened to their legacies?

Lemon: Niyazov cultivated the most extensive cult of personality in Central Asia replete with rotating gold statues and days of the week named after his mother. Originally, when Berdimuhamedow came to power, he talked about maintaining that legacy. Mirziyoyev also spoke about not needing a radical departure from Karimov’s regime. But gradually, Niyazov’s cult of personality – centered around his status as Turkmenbashi, or leader of the Turkmen – has been removed or moved to the side. Sometimes quite literally with the case of statues. Berdimuhamedow has also embarked on more symbolic reforms like reinstituting elections and reforming the parliament, all while not denigrating the legacy of Niyazov and maintaining respect for the ‘Father of the Nation’. In Uzbekistan since 2016, Karimov’s isolationist “Uzbek’s path” has been dismantled while the former leader is not explicitly criticized. These post-leadership transition changes would presumably concern Putin: how can he maintain the system that he created after he departs the scene? The evidence from Central Asia indicates that after death in office, the established system is dismantled.  

The interview was prepared by Yana Gorokhvskaya, a political scientist researching civil society and local politics in Russia. From 2016 to 2019, she was a postdoctoral scholar in Russian Politics at the Harriman Institute for Russian, Eurasian, and East European Studies.